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As I have written before, I am taking a class on Russian-Jewish literature (Русско-еврейская литература). The class and all of the readings are in Russian, so I won’t pretend that I’m able to understand every word of every concept that we cover (and will, in fact, admit that I probably miss as much if not more than I get). Regardless! This is, in addition to being challenging like whoa and (hopefully) just as rewarding, one of the most intriguing classes I’ve taken. I mean that in both the best and the worst possible way.
I am not referring to the professor (who’s very patient and has agreed to meet with the three Americans in the class for ninety minutes before the three hour class starts (why, yes, my feelings on this are mixed)), or to his teaching style (very much lecture, not discussion, based), but rather to the subject matter itself.
I do not take Russian because I am Jewish (I mean this in the ethnic, secular sense), and although I think part of the reason my very first class on Eastern and Central Europe was so interesting was because it actually had relevance to the side of my family with which I identify in terms of heritage, I have not studied Jews in the Russia or its empire since.
It’s a very strange experience to read literature by Russian Jews who lived in Ukraine (which, at the time, was “the Ukraine,” because it was part of the Russian empire) about Russian Jews who lived in Ukraine set in the time at which your Jewish ancestors lived in Ukraine. And it’s a very strange experience to find yourself groping through a text you don’t entirely understand not only by using your limited Russian vocabulary, but also by stumbling across transliterated Yiddish words you happen to have heard of before, or a concept of Jewish or Judaism with which, despite your distrust of all things religious, you are somehow familiar.
In some ways, it’s fascinating. Everyone [disclaimer: no, I do not actually know if everyone feels this way] wants to know more about who they are and where they come from. Why else do people bother going on ancestry websites or mapping their family trees? And why else did I ask my dad whether or not his grandparents spoke Russian?
The response I got (from my great uncle, by way of my father) was this: “My father spoke some Russian and came from the town of Korets in the Ukraine. I once asked him if he wanted to visit his birth town and he told me, ‘If the place was any good we wouldn’t have left.’ We never went.”
The Jewish people described in the literature suffer. They are stereotyped, subjugated, maligned. Another American girl in my class told me that, to her, the Russian Jew is the epitome of the Russian, because the Russian soul and spirit and literature is all about suffering, and the Jews suffered most of all.
Neither the Russians nor the Jews saw it that way. Russian hyphen Jewish literature is not Russian literature proper, which, for the most part, does not address the shetl and the suffering and the sadistic stereotypes. To be a Russian Jew was not, in fact, to be Russian. And the treatment of the Jewish people in this literature is a reflection of their treatment in society (particularly after March 1st, 1881, on which Alexander II was assassinated and Alexander III came to power, reversing his predecessor’s progressive policies and putting pogroms in place).
And it’s here that I’m intrigued in the worst possible way. Where does the text end and society begin? If a character is anti-semitic, how much of that is the character and the narrator? The narrator and the author? All three? I looked up one author online to see if he was Jewish, because some of his characters and characterizations were so painfully discriminatory. It turns out that he was an advocate for equality for Jews. It made a difference to me reading the text. I’m still not sure if it should have.